This is a great time for backyard apples. I’ve just started my first brew of home made cider vinegar from windfall apples. Both my apple trees are doing well, and other people’s are doing even better.
If I had to pick a favourite fruit, it would be apples. They are one of the things I missed most, in my Papua New Guinea childhood. Apples just don’t grow in the tropics.
Apples in New Zealand
Actually, apples are not ideally suited for most New Zealand climates either. They originated in central Eurasia, and our climate is too humid, and not cold enough in winter.
Apple trees cope pretty well here, despite this. But they are prone to a whole bunch of diseases and pests. This is why commercial apple farmers have to use lots of sprays. Home-grown apples don’t usually look perfect, like the ones in the supermarket. But at least you know there’s nothing toxic on them.
My attitude is that if there are plenty of apples, I don’t mind sharing with a few pests. But some of my organic gardener friends report great success with vinegar and honey traps for codling moth.
Some apple varieties do better here than others, particularly local heritage cultivars. With apples there are new cultivars constantly arising, every time someone grows an apple tree from a pip. My neighbours Clare and Tim have a hugely prolific tree that’s a completely unknown variety.
Cox's Orange Pippins, early in the season. This photo, and all the others on this page, are by Dani Edwards.
I have two apple trees, one Oratia Beauty and one Cox’s Orange Pippin. I chose them because they both grow pretty well in the Waikato, and they ripen at different times – the Oratia Beauty is early, starting in mid-January, and the Cox’s ripens in midsummer. Plus, I can’t find either variety in a supermarket. Or at the farmers’ market.
Here's a link to How To Plant A Fruit Tree, an eBook I co-wrote with Clare Jackson. It contains everything I wish I'd known when I planted my trees! But I didn't totally screw up, or I wouldn't have apples now.
The Cox’s Orange Pippin is my absolute favourite. It’s the apple that tastes just like I think an apple should. Sweet, rich, nutty, aromatic, etc. It turns out to be a cultivar bred in 1830 in Buckinghamshire by a horticulturist called Richard Cox. So I guess it must be my nostalgic half-British side coming out. I’ve only rarely found Cox’s Orange Pippins for sale in New Zealand. But I know they are grown commercially here, because I found New Zealand Cox’s apples for sale in Aberystwyth.
Cox's Orange Pippins, getting closer to eating time.
When I was a teenager in Auckland, we used to drive out to Oratia to buy boxes of Oratia Beauty apples from local growers. I’ve noticed that the fruit from my tree in Hamilton isn’t as sweet as the fruit from Oratia was. Which could be due to the different climate, or my memory might just be sweeter.
Oratia Beauty is a red variety of Gravenstein, which is one of the world’s famous cooking apples, and originated in Denmark in 1669. The Oratia Beauty arose as a “sport”, i.e. bud mutation, of Albany Beauty, which in turn was a sport of Gravenstein. It was registered as a new variety in 1931. The international Slow Food foundation says the Oratia Beauty apple is in danger of disappearing because the New Zealand apple industry is focused on export crops and new varieties of apple that can be trademarked. Also, the commercial apple industry is concentrated in Hawke’s Bay and Nelson, and growers in other parts of the country have been sidelined.
Oratia Beauty isn’t well suited for modern commercial crops because it doesn’t keep well, and the fruit matures at different times on the tree, requiring ongoing harvesting. But this quality makes it a great variety for a backyard tree. Also, its flavour is tart rather than sweet, and consumers now expect apples to be very sweet.
What to do with apples
1. Just eat them
To complement a freshly picked Oratia Beauty apple, I highly recommend a slice of Meyer’s tasty gouda with cumin - made in Hamilton and available from The Gouda Cheese Shop.
2. Cider vinegar
This is easy and even saves money, because organic apple cider vinegar is pretty expensive. I use apple cider vinegar in home-made chutneys and pickles, as well as salad dressings.
This recipe came from Jean Gwatkin, NZ Gardener Homegrown (2007).
I think that that if the apples are sweet enough, you actually don’t need to add sugar. I’m planning to try this with my next batch.
Enough apples to fill a 10 litre plastic bucket (food grade)
3 cups organic Fairtrade sugar from Trade Aid - their Hamilton shop is in Worley Place, just off Garden Place.
Boil enough water to half fill the bucket. Let cool.
Wash, chop and roughly process the apples – skins, cores and all.
Add to the bucket until they’re level with the water.
Cover with a cloth or loose lid and stir daily for a week.
At the end of the week, strain and add the sugar to the liquid.
Pour into another clean bucket and leave in a cool place for two months. When the “mother” (a sort of leathery translucent skin) forms on the top of the liquid, your cider vinegar is ready to strain and bottle.
3. Apple chutney
My adaptation of a recipe by Madhur Jaffrey.
1 kg apples – remove cores and any bugs, but leave skin on
1 head garlic, divided into cloves, peeled and chopped (Less garlic is okay, but the flavour won’t be as intense.)
1 piece of ginger approx 5cm long and 2 or 3cm wide, grated and chopped
1 ½ cups cider vinegar
1 cup organic Fairtrade sugar
1 ½ tsp salt
2 Tbsp raisins
½ a hot chilli, finely chopped (or more to taste)
Place ingredients in a big saucepan and simmer until apples are soft. Take off the heat and when it has cooled a bit, put through a mouli to get rid of the skins and make the mixture smooth. Return the mixture to the saucepan and cook slowly, stirring regularly, until the liquid has reduced in volume by about half. This will take at least two or three hours. When it gets thick and starts to stick on the bottom it is done.
Seal in sterile, hot jars.
4. Apple sweetness
My local tree specialist, Tim Newton from Green Footprint, reckons that apples are the best way to grow your own sweetener, e.g. home-pressed apple juice can be used instead of sugar syrup, to bottle fruit.